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What is an OSHA Performance Standard?

We live with rules, regulations, standards, laws, and guidelines that govern our working lives each and every day. However, more specifically, when we talk about OSHA regulations, we sometimes hear that they are “Performance Standards”. But what does this term really mean?

Unlike traffic laws which are very specific, i.e. driving 35 MPH; performance standards don’t tell you specifically what to do. However, when OSHA uses the words shall, must, and will, you don’t have a choice but to comply. The question is – how are you going to comply? It is rare that you will find directives within the OSHA standards where you are told just how to do something. In most cases, the standards are performance based.

For example, if you go to 29 CFR 1910.134, the Respiratory Protection Standard, will tell you what is required for respiratory protection. However, it does not tell you how to set up the program. It provides guidelines and does specify some requirements, but in general, it leaves the “HOW” part of the equation up to you.

If an OSHA inspector were to visit six different businesses in one day and all of them were required to have a respiratory protection program, the inspector would have to carefully examine each program for compliance. Why, you ask? Because each business is allowed to determine how the program requirements will be met based on each company’s needs and how they wish to go about meeting the requirements spelled out in the regulations – in other words, each program is based on its own merits or performance.

In our example about the speed limit, we aren’t given any choice in the matter. The law says you are not to go faster than 35 miles per hour and if you do, you can be cited for speeding. With OSHA standards you can do whatever you think is best to comply as long as you meet the intent of the regulations. Some regulations have more specific constraints than others, but for the most part, you are given a reasonable amount of latitude as to HOW you are going to achieve compliance.

Perhaps with a better understanding of the intent of these expectations, you can find several ways to be in compliance. Remember, OSHA’s mission is to make sure that every worker in America goes home safely at the end of every work shift. OSHA’s job is not to make life more difficult, but to make life worth living; to reduce injuries, illnesses, property damage, harm to the environment and interruptions of business activities. The regulations are designed to guide your efforts so that your business can perform its functions in a safe manner.